Friday, August 20, 1999 Published at 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
Upper toffs: Awfully good show?
Leslie Phillips: Typical toff, now showing at Edinburgh Festival
Whatever "upper toffs" might be, there are apparently too many of them around.
But as an off-the-cuff comment from the deputy prime minister, it was treated pretty lightheartedly by the newspapers. While one said it was "another Prescott stumble", another said it just threw more light on "the one man class struggle".
If Mr Prescott has been confused about his own class, it's understandable. Lines between the classes are not as clear as they once were.
Things have changed - the arcane origins of the world "toff" prove that.
Jonathan Green's estimable Dictionary of Slang says that the word toff is derived from "tuft-hunter", tufts being golden braids on mortar boards by titled undergraduates
Ordinary untitled undergraduates wore plain black tassles, but some aspired to the aristocracy, and hence tried to act like them.
Gradually over the years, most of the factors identified with being a toff have become less conclusive. Being wealthy, holding positions of power, automatically being given social deference, even wearing hand made shoes; all have become less definitive.
But as well as the school you went to, there is one pretty reliable indicator. Time and again class is judged by the way people speak. Whatever class might mean, people know it when they hear it.
Kenneth Rose added: "It's all very well for Blair to slur his consonants and drop his aitches, but that's all put on."
Even Mr Prescott acknowledged it, saying: "Don't make no mistake about it, I'm proud of being working class. I'm not changing my attitude or culturing my voice or even getting my grammar correct."
It's a pattern repeated endlessly in popular culture, not just by the professional toffs like actor Leslie Phillips, currently on stage in Edinburgh.
How about the following line from the much-hyped US novel Turn of the Century by Kurt Andersen, when George Mactier assumes a woman is American.
"'Crikey, George!' she had said. 'I'm English!'"
And meanwhile the man of the moment in the UK media has been Boris Johnson, recently appointed as editor of the Spectator - identified by some newspapers as a bastion of "toffness".
Johnson is the man whose particular vocab includes such gems as "egad", "omigosh", and "Gadzooks". Try getting away with those in a northern accent.
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